Catfish in Black Bean Sauce

Interracial relationships are perennial feeding grounds for movie plots. The public is never far from a movie where the central story revolves around two people of different races dating (recent examples include Snow Falling on Cedars and East is East). The movie is then usually a screwball comedy or a serious drama. Catfish in Black Bean Sauce manages to be both. This movie is notable because one of the two parties is not white. Instead, one is Vietnamese and the other is African-American. And the relationship is not necessarily romantic, it is also familial. Catfish is Chi Muoi Lo's (The Relic) labor of love. It took Lo, the writer, director, and producer, over two years to make this movie, his first behind the camera. For the small group of people who knew who Lo previously was, he is no longer "the fat guy from Vanishing Son."

Dwayne (Lo) and Mai (Lauren Tom, Susan's Plan, With Friends Like These) are Vietnamese. When they were children, African-American couple Harold (Paul Winfield, Second to Die, Relax...It's Just Sex) and Dolores (Mary Alice, Down in the Delta, The Photographer). Mai announces she found her birth mother Thanh (Kieu Chinh, City of Angels, The Joy Luck Club) and is flying her to America. Mai plans for Thanh to live with her and her husband Vinh (Tzi Ma, Rush Hour, Dante's Peak). Instead, Thanh moves in with Dwayne and his roommate Michael (Tyler Christopher). Dwayne is dating Nina (Sanaa Lathan, Love and Basketball, The Wood). Lo assembled an impressive cast, which is a large factor in keeping this movie afloat.

Lo's script then proceeds much like a soap opera. Dolores was never close to Mia, and now feels that Mia and Dwayne are abandoning her for Thanh. Thanh is trying to remake Mai and Dwayne into good Vietnamese children. Nina is reserved and not prone to display affections, which causes Dwayne to doubt her love for him. Michael is having his own unique dating problems. Lo has so much raw emotion in the story that it is a testament that most of it remains genuine. Some falls into histrionics, but the cast usually manages to keep it at a high level. In particular, Tom and Alice's relationship together is a large source of tension. Mai feels that Dolores is trying to force her to accept her as mother, while Alice is jealous that Mai confides in Harold. There is a lot going on here, and Lo tries to cram it all in. Mai and Dwayne both have identity issues not dealt with extensively, and Lo even throws in a heart attack for good measure. Thanh is also surprisingly nonchalant about her children being raised by African-Americans.

Lo's freshness as a director is evident. His intentions are earnest, but sometimes do not quite make it on screen. He does have an eye for odd comedy, which he frequently inserts to lighten the mood. Some particularly strange and hilarious sequences that play out turn out to be dreams. The end almost plays out like an old-fashioned screwball comedy. Much of the film is shot with a soft light, giving it less of a cinematic and more of a television feel. Lo is also the weakest of the actors, falling under the shadow of actors with extensive film and theater experience. The tag line for Catfish in Black Bean Sauce (an actual Asian dish that sounds Southern) is "watch out for bones." There are some bones here, but Lo manages to miss them.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 52 minutes, Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and sexual content.

Back to Movies